Having recently won the Gold and Silver awards by The Goldsmiths’ Craft & Design Council Awards, which are considered as the “Jewellery Oscars,” Ute Decker’s works can only be characterised as expressive, three-dimensional “Geometric Poetry”. Her unique, and limited edition pieces have become such a beautiful, distinctive mark to Decker that they have become so avidly collected, with her works sitting in the public collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Musée Barbier-Mueller, the UK Crafts Council Collection and the Swiss National Museum. Elisabetta Cipriani sits down with Ute Decker discussing her highly acclaimed Wearable Art collection.
EC: When did you start making jewellery and why?
UD: I was 40 when I first exhibited my work – not really a youngster.
My background started with studies at the Sorbonne, then a degree in political economics – I worked as a linguist and dabbled in journalism with stints at the UN and CNN.
But during all this time there was always a creative urge; taking courses in sculpture, philosophy, photography, ceramics, silversmithing, jewellery and numerous others. It was, however, jewellery that I returned to again and again for over 20 years.
Eventually in 2009, I accepted an invitation to take part in a small group exhibition. The reception was so amazing; it gave me the courage to set up a full-time studio and focus on my artistic practice.
In 2013 Didier and Martine of Didier Ltd gave my work a spotlight showcase at Design Basel where we met for the first time. Since you invited me to become part of your artist family in 2014 your infectious passion really allowed me to push my work.
EC: What is your first approach the moment you sit down and start working towards the piece?
UD: My studio is filled with shelves and drawers full of maquettes. For me the most exciting part of the process is when I start with a length of garden wire sculpting a line and empty space and the piece begins to take form – full of movement and energy. Forms that speak to me, that make me dance in the studio. These ideas then continue to mature over months or sometimes even years.
studio bench, experimenting with garden wire and brass maquettes
EC: You’ve previously said that you were influenced by diverse ideas such as tribal arts and the minimalism of Zen philosophy. With works such as your major series, Calligraphy, and Waves, what are the aspects of the wearable piece of jewellery that you pay close attention to, in order to realise your idea into something we can wear?
UD: As diverse tribal arts and the minimalism of Zen might seem, in my view they are trying to express a concept, an emotion, something intangible yet so incredibly real and human in very direct yet often abstract, condensed and simple forms – making them the more powerful for it.
This purity of expression and concentration on the essential is what I aim for in my work.
I am often drawn to the dynamic form of the spiral as a starting point. This form has been powerfully used in African tribal arts, by the Celts, the Incas to Man Ray and Calder. For me this archaic form is a rich symbol of our common humanity across the ages, across continents and cultures.
In Japan I admired the thoughtful craftsmanship, the paired down aesthetic and the uncluttered attention to the smallest detail.
My Calligraphy series of brooches is inspired by a love for Japanese calligraphy.
Calligraphy, 2020. 100 % recycled silver brooch sand texture and burnished edges.Unique within a series. Signed
Rolling Waves in Moonlight II, 2019. 18kt Fairtrade gold brooch, sand texture, matt, burnished edges.16cm long. Unique within a series 3. Signed
Crest of Waves at Noon, 2017. Bimetal 18kt recycled gold and recycled silver brooch. 10 cm long. Edition of 12. Signed
These sculptures are my personal meditation on the richness of simplicity.
I also like to think of them as ribbons of friendships. They may appear to be simple overall, but I like to use subtle details, such as texture and colour, line, shape, movement, light, shadows and space to balance simplicity with complexity, to create a calm yet dynamic engaging form.
Calligraphy, 2020. 100 % recycled silver brooch sand texture and burnished edges. 13.5 x 5.5. x 3 cm. Unique within a series. Signed
EC: You are very involved with the production of these works, how far have you gone to independently work with each piece? Do you fully focus on producing the perfect sketch for the work first? Or is it the trial and error, hands-on approach with manipulating the metal?
UD: I don’t start with a drawing; I start with the ever-rewarding garden wire.
From there I move on to making brass maquettes. I am often seen wearing these test pieces, taking them off in the middle of dinner to make adjustments. This stage can be a challenge but vital to give these sculptures such wearability and perfect balance on the body.
I make the same shape over and over again until I have developed an intuitive relationship with the form, until I feel, I can just pick up a strip of metal and shape it in one continuous movement – like the well-practiced but seemingly effortless brushstrokes of Japanese calligraphy.
Of course, there are many abandoned maquettes and ideas, very few make it to this stage.
This free, serendipitous approach means each piece is different and unique, even within an edition.
During that period my assistant has started to prepare the metal for me, texture pieces of silver or gold, file the edges, sanding down and polishing up – ready for the day when I feel the muses are with me to create the final piece.
Calligraphy hand sculpture with test brass pieces
Calligraphy hand sculpture, 2019. 18kt Fairtrade gold, sand texture, matt, burnished edges. 9.6cm x 6cm x 4.3cm. Edition of 3. Signed
EC: You have been described as “the architectural jeweller”, drawing your practice from other mediums including sculptures, textiles, paper and ceramics. And we definitely see your Wearable pieces as equally engaging on a plinth as they are on the body, which can blur the lines between sculpture and jewellery. How do you personally see your jewellery and its relationship to art?
UD: Painting, sculpture and especially body adornments such as jewellery are the oldest art forms. For millennia we have used these to express ourselves and to communicate. I see my work in that tradition of human expression and communication. I am particularly drawn to jewellery as the most intimate and tactile art form where artist, wearer as well as viewer come together to bring a piece to life.
EC: With your works given specific titles such as Curling Crest of a Wave, Man Ray Swan, Calligraphy, or even Two Unicorns Facing Opposite Directions, would you say you give a single line of gold and silver a unique narrative with every work you make?
UD: The titles are meaningful to me, but I am happy for them to stay enigmatic, free of a defined symbolism – allowing the wearer and viewer to ‘read’ or better even ‘feel’ the piece with their own perception, life experiences and interpretations.
Equally, I never start out with a concept but ideally what Zen philosophy calls “the empty mind”. Emptiness full of possibilities.
It is only later when a piece has emerged, I recognise certain concepts and thoughts that are subconsciously in my mind.
Two Unicorns Facing Opposite Directions hand sculpture, 2018. 18kt Fairtrade gold ring sand texture, matt, burnished edges. 3.8 cm long circa. Edition of 6. Signed
Rose hand sculpture, 2017 18kt Fairtrade gold ring sand texture, matt, burnished edges. 4 h x 3.5 w cm. Edition of 6. Signed
Man Ray ear sculpture 2020, 100 % recycled silver sand texture, burnished edges. 6 x 2.2 x 2.2 cm unique within a series. Signed
For example, the Articulation neck sculpture: Once the piece was finished, it reminded me of a philosophical discourse that fascinated me since I was a teenager. The idea of what makes us who we are, the debate of “nature” versus “nurture”.
Starting out with two meters of tube, I can choose the length of the segments, string each piece in different configurations. You could see this as the given part, the “nature”.
It is then open to the wearer in which configuration to wear the piece. As the segments have been given different lengths – the angles will be very different from piece to piece when put around the neck once, twice or three times. The possibilities are endless. You can plan but often the piece will nevertheless turn out differently….
Articulation, 2018. 18kt recycled gold. Edition of 6. Signed. Also available in silver as a multiple
Four out of hundreds of possible configurations of the same Articulation neck sculpture.
For me, I see in this piece a metaphor for life: it is up to us how we shape it.
But these are my personal association – others might be drawn to the architectural use of space or its playfulness. This conceptual as well as physical interactive experience of the wearer is an important element of many of my pieces.
The neck sculpture is called Articulation, because, yes – technically it is articulated. But more than that, the piece articulates, talks, communicates. It makes connections. It is a “conversation piece”. Every time I wear it – people comment, it is a beginning of a conversation, the beginning of a connection made ….
EC: Given your recent awards, you were awarded under the category of Fairtrade Jewellery as well as Fine Jewellery. As one of the first art jewellers in the world to use Fairtrade Gold, could you please tell us more about this approach?
UD: My gold pieces can be traced all the way from the artisanal mining cooperative in the highlands of Peru to my bench in central London. The amazing work of the artisan miners of Macdesa – the source of my Fairtrade Gold – ensures that the gold is mined in an as sustainable and ecologically sound way as possible, thereby preserving the environment for future generations. Fairtrade also promotes gender equality, guaranteeing women representatives are involved in all key community decisions, helping to build financial independence.
I am happy to pay a Fairtrade premium for my gold, which is guaranteed to go directly to investing in the community.
To verify it is Fairtrade Gold, the Fairtrade logo is engraved right next to the hallmark.
Chaos brooch & neck sculpture, 2019. 18kt Fairtrade gold. Unique within a series of 6. Signed
EC: I wanted to follow up on my previous question where your works have been engaging and contextualised within society and the environment. Why is the social political engagement with your works so important to your practice?
UD: Jewellery is my medium of telling a story, of making connections and working as ethically and sustainably as we can is one of the most urgent stories of today.
From the mindful sourcing of materials to only using non-toxic chemicals in the studio – I try to think carefully about my work, its context in society and the world we live in.
A guiding principle is a quotation attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in this world”
Being passionate about sharing my knowledge and facilitating change, I unite my artistic practice with a committed social engagement. My website has become the world’s largest resource on sustainable jewellery practices. Since 2018 this can be found at ethicalmaking.org, a dedicated website created in partnership with the Incorporation of Goldsmiths, Scotland. It is used by thousands of students, jewellers as well as consumers around the world.
Having become a pioneer of the international ethical jewellery movement, I regularly give talks and workshops on the subject. Fairtrade Gold is such a beautiful and empowering story. To me this connectedness adds an important layer of meaning.
As an individual, I might feel anything I do is just a drop in the ocean.
This may be so but, we have to remember the ocean is but an accumulation of endless drops.
Each one of us is one of these drops.
EC: Do you have a favourite piece, and do you prefer wearing a ring, a necklace, a brooch or a necklace?
UD: I love them all.
The first 20 years, I only made jewellery for myself and I still do this today in a way. Even though I want to keep and wear each piece – the sensation of seeing somebody else’s sparkling eyes when they discover a piece – try it on for the first time, make it their own – it’s wonderful.
Infinity Spirals ear sculptures, 2019. 18kt Fairtrade gold earrings satin texture. Edition of 6. Signed
EC: We are in the midst of planning your first UK gallery exhibition in London in November 2020. What exciting new pieces or concepts do you plan on debuting? Will you be unveiling any new mediums?
UD: I honestly can’t tell you. I am working on many ideas at the moment, it might involve richly dark 7500-year-old oak, it might involve gemstones for the very first time – they are both on my bench right now. But probably it won’t be until late summer until the process of experimentation will reveal itself. While there is always a certain amount of anxiety when embarking on new work, I love this creative process – this freedom, the joy of experimentation and discovery.
So it will be a surprise – for you as much as for myself – where this process might take me. The journey of serendipity continues…
But one thing is certain, in the midst of this terrible Corona crisis, I can’t tell you how much I long for the opening of our show!
For of all of us to come together to celebrate life, friendships and creativity.
Until then, please stay strong, stay connected, and stay well.
See you in November!
Ute and Elisabetta